Prebiotics Improve Stress Resilience and Sleep

Is stress the driver of your insomnia? Eating more high-fiber foods—sometimes called prebiotics (different from probiotics)—may help both your stomach and your sleep.

In a new study on rats conducted at the University of Colorado, a high-fiber diet promoted the growth of healthy gut bacteria, increased resilience to stress, and made sleep more robust following a stressful event. Here are the take-aways and what the study suggests about human sleep.

Insomnia sufferers should eat high-fiber foods for stress protection and better sleepIs stress the driver of your insomnia? Eating more high fiber foods—sometimes called prebiotics (different from probiotics)—may help both your stomach and your sleep.

In a new study on rats conducted at the University of Colorado, a high fiber diet promoted the growth of healthy gut bacteria, increased resilience to stress, and made sleep more robust following a stressful event. Here are the take-aways and what the study suggests about human sleep.

Stress, Sleep, the Gut, and Probiotics

Most of us sleep better when life is moving along on an even keel. It’s when we have to cope with stressors—a divorce, a bullying boss, sustained combat—that insomnia tends to occur. Chronic stress may eventually lead to chronic insomnia.

Likewise, stress has a harmful impact on the gut. A healthy gut has diverse beneficial bacteria spread evenly throughout the gastrointestinal tract. Stress makes the bacterial community less diverse and less evenly distributed.

One approach to reestablishing a healthy community of gut bacteria is to use a probiotic such as yogurt containing live bacteria, soft cheeses, or a probiotic supplement. Probiotics help repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria. They’ve also been shown in rodents and humans to reduce the effects of stress on both the body and the brain.

A Prebiotic Diet Has Beneficial Effects

Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers found in certain foods that promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria such as those found in yogurt and probiotic supplements. The researchers at University of Colorado wondered if feeding young rats a diet rich in prebiotics would increase beneficial gut bacteria and reduce the effects of stress, including its effects on sleep.

So they conducted a controlled experiment using 52 rats. One group was fed a control diet and the other was fed a prebiotic diet. After several weeks, half of the rats in each group were administered a series of tail shocks. The lead author of the study has described these shocks as “the equivalent of a single intense acute stressful episode for humans, such as a car accident of the death of a loved one.”

From analyses of the rats’ fecal material, body functions, and sleep before and after the tail shocks, the authors concluded that the prebiotic diet:

  • Increased stress-protective bacteria in the rats’ gastrointestinal tracts
  • Reduced measurable symptoms of stress
  • Cut down on stress-related wake-ups during recovery sleep
  • Increased beneficial REM sleep during recovery sleep

Overall, the prebiotic diet made the rats more resilient to stress and their sleep more robust.

A High Fiber Diet for Humans?

Would a diet high in prebiotics be similarly protective of the human gastrointestinal tract and human sleep? That, say the researchers, is what they’re going to study next.

For now, given prior clinical research and the fact that there are no known downsides to consuming prebiotic foods, it’s probably a good idea to incorporate more high fiber foods into your diet—especially if you’re prone to stress related insomnia.

Prebiotic Foods

Here are several foods high in prebiotics. You get more mileage from plant fibers when fruits and vegetables are eaten raw, but a light steaming may not do much to diminish their effectiveness.

  • asparagus
  • leeks
  • garlic
  • onions
  • dandelion greens
  • apples
  • bananas
  • jicama
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • wheat bran
  • bread made of wheat flour
  • barley
  • oats
  • seaweed
  • flaxseeds
  • legumes

A Beta Blocker for Stress-Related Insomnia

Is your insomnia linked to stress? When you go to bed at night, are you suddenly aware of your heart beat, muscle tension, and bodily warmth?

A drug now in the pipeline may one day be available to treat stress-related insomnia—if it measures up to its developers’ expectations.

Stress-related insomnia may respond to treatment with a beta blockerIs your insomnia linked to stress? When you go to bed at night, are you suddenly aware of your heart beat, muscle tension, and bodily warmth?

A drug now in the pipeline may one day be available to treat stress-related insomnia—if it measures up to its developers’ expectations.

It’s Not a New Drug

New medications are expensive and time consuming to develop. So many drug companies are now bent on repurposing drugs whose side effects suggest other possible uses.

In the world of sleeping pills this is déjà vu. Over-the-counter sleep aids like ZzzQuil and Sominex, whose active ingredient is diphenhydramine, got their start with the first-generation antihistamines that came on the scene in the late 1940s and 1950s. These antihistamines were originally sold to combat allergies and relieve cold symptoms. But none were free of the side effect of drowsiness. So manufacturers like Rexall and J.B. Williams decided to cash in on that property and market them as sleeping pills instead.

Drowsiness is also a side effect of some antidepressant medications. Doxepin, an old tricylic antidepressant, is one such drug. It achieves its sedating effect by blocking transmission of histamine—even at very low doses. Somaxon Pharmaceuticals saw a money-making opportunity here. Silenor, a drug the company “developed” for treatment of sleep maintenance insomnia and which came to market in 2010, is the equivalent of low-dose doxepin.

A Beta Blocker for Insomnia

Now a company called Blake Insomnia Therapeutics is developing an insomnia drug whose main ingredient is the beta blocker nebivolol. As a class, beta blockers are used to treat hypertension and cardiovascular conditions. They block the effects of the stress hormone epinephrine (Adrenalin). This causes blood vessels to expand, lowering blood pressure and heart rate.

“But wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “Aren’t beta blockers known to cause insomnia in some users?”

Yes. First- and second-generation beta blockers have been found to cause insomnia and nightmares in some users, as well as reductions in REM sleep. Beta blockers also block secretion of melatonin, a sleep-friendly hormone released at night.

Nebivolol, a third-generation beta blocker, is different, the research shows. It does not inhibit melatonin secretion. Nor, taken in the evening, does it cause morning drowsiness—a common shortcoming of many sleeping pills on the market today.

How It Could Affect Sleep

Chronic stress-related insomnia is fueled by several factors that feed one another. Some are psychological, such as rumination and anxiety about sleep. Others are physiological, affecting heart rate and skeletal muscles, among other things. Awareness of the physiological symptoms of arousal—such as an increased or erratic heart beat and muscle tension—tends to escalate anxiety, which in turn exacerbates the physiological symptoms, and on and on. Pretty soon you’re caught up in a vicious circle and unable to calm down.

A nebivolol compound would be expected to dial down the physiological symptoms associated with stress-related insomnia. Without the troublesome physiological symptoms, insomniacs wouldn’t experience so much anxiety about sleep, company CEO Birger Jan Olsen maintains. He contends that by removing many of the physiological and psychological symptoms fueling stress-related insomnia, the drug will improve sleep. (It did so for Olsen’s mother. Her intractable insomnia responded to treatment with nebivolol.)

Will the Drug Ever Come to Market, and When?

The good news here is that the new compound, called Zleepax, is made from substances that are generally recognized as safe in the United States and Europe. So the company can skip phase I testing altogether. If the drug is eventually approved by the FDA, its main selling point will be that unlike many insomnia medications—scheduled drugs associated with the risk of developing tolerance when used long term—Zleepax does not cause morning drowsiness or carry the same long-term risks.

Phase II testing is set to begin this year. If all goes well, Phase III testing will follow. The company is projecting a product launch in 2022.

But the road to FDA approval is fraught with challenges. The company is still trying to raise money to fund the necessary trials. The drug’s performance could be lukewarm in large-scale tests. Undesirable side effects could be discovered along the way.

Even so, the drug sounds promising. Too bad the development process cannot be speeded up.

Does a drug like this sound like it might be helpful to you?